Digital currencies before bitcoin

The emergence of viable digital money is closely linked to developments in cryptography. This is not surprising when one considers the fundamental challenges involved with using bits to represent value that can be exchanged for goods and services. Two fundamental questions for anyone accepting digital money are:

  • Can I trust the money is authentic and not counterfeit?
  • Can I be sure that no one else can claim that this money belongs to them and not me? (aka the “double-spend” problem)

Issuers of paper money are constantly battling the counterfeiting problem by using increasingly sophisticated papers and printing technology. Physical money addresses the double-spend issue easily because the same paper note cannot be in two places at once. Of course, conventional money is also often stored and transmitted digitally. In this case the counterfeiting and double-spend issues are handled by clearing all electronic transactions through central authorities that have a global view of the currency in circulation. For digital money, which cannot take advantage of esoteric inks or holographic strips, cryptography provides the basis for trusting the legitimacy of a user’s claim to value. Specifically, cryptographic digital signatures enable a user to sign a digital asset or transaction proving the ownership of that asset. With the appropriate architecture, digital signatures also can be used to address the double-spend issue.
When cryptography started becoming more broadly available and understood in the late 1980s, many researchers began trying to use cryptography to build digital currencies. These early digital currency projects issued digital money, usually backed by a national currency or precious metal such as gold.
While these earlier digital currencies worked, they were centralized and as a result they were easy to attack by governments and hackers. Early digital currencies used a central clearinghouse to settle all transactions at regular intervals, just like a traditional banking system. Unfortunately, in most cases these nascent digital currencies were targeted by worried governments and eventually litigated out of existence. Some failed in spectacular crashes when the parent company liquidated abruptly. To be robust against intervention by antagonists, whether legitimate governments or criminal elements, a decentralized digital currency was needed to avoid a single point of attack. Bitcoin is such a system, completely de-centralized by design, and free of any central authority or point of control that can be attacked or corrupted.
Bitcoin represents the culmination of decades of research in cryptography and distributed systems and includes four key innovations brought together in a unique and powerful combination. Bitcoin consists of

  • A de-centralized peer-to-peer network (the bitcoin protocol);
  • A public transaction ledger (the blockchain);
  • A de-centralized mathematical and deterministic currency issuance (distributed mining), and;
  • A de-centralized transaction verification system (transaction script).
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